On my day off yesterday, I had the fortune of finding out about a free educational presentation by the Taiwu Children’s Ancient Ballads Troupe and Daniel Ho at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana from a friend who heard them interviewed on KPFK that same morning. I’m so glad I made the drive down to OC to catch them!
The Taiwu Children’s Ancient Ballads Troupe is from the indigenous Paiwan tribe in southern Taiwan. I learned they and other indigenous Taiwanese tribes don’t have written languages to they pass down their histories, values and social structure entirely through their songs. Their culture is preserved through this oral tradition and the singing itself is very unique and part of a rite of passage for the Paiwan youth.
Their singing has been described as singing from a mountaintop and indeed, the way they sing in a group is very different from Western choruses. The children can sing a whole 8 bars of music without breathing. They just take one deep breath and sing; they don’t hold back.
Also, in Western youth choirs, everyone is expected to blend together and singers outgrow the group when they enter puberty and their voices change and become dissonant. In the Paiwan groups, singers can take turns showing off their individual skill and as their voices change, they occupy different roles in the group. Some of the children have been singing with the group for 8-9 years and as their voices change, this is seen as a natural transition in life and evolution in the group.
A common theme of the music is love which Camake jokingly explained that with the tribe’s lack of light at night, what else was there to sing about and do with each other, and the children are allowed to openly sing about things they naturally see on a human body, like breasts and sex organs, until they are age 7, after which time they’re expected to behave.
As children get older, the singing becomes a kind of group dating, since there is no individual one on one courtship. Singers getting their turns to sing individually is a way for them to attract the attention of the opposite sex. Camake (pronounced Cha-mock) Valaule, their music director and mentor, joked that while singing in the groups, each person can have dozens of suitors and admirers — but he assured the audience like Westerners, they only get to marry one partner.
The group was joined by Daniel Ho, Grammy-Award winning Hawaiian composer and musician, who pointed out the similarities between Taiwanese indigenous musical tradition and Hawaiian music, which also comes from an unwritten oral tradition. In fact, I learned something new — that Hawaiian and Polynesian peoples are descended from the Taiwanese native peoples and unlike Western written music, which can be played exactly note for note like the original, the music of both indigenous groups evolve through the generations, with new elements added and improvisations, and the music is constantly changing.
Daniel’s collaboration with the group explored his fascination with how sound is turned into emotion and the theme of their concert is To & From the Heart. With Daniel accompanying their singing with his piano and ukelele, the children’s pure, innocent voices are absolutely moving and took me on a sublime journey of their culture and tradition. Camake explained that they couldn’t afford to bring the whole group, so the 6 children on tour are the best of the group. Back in Taiwan, Camake donates his own time and money for after school choir practice to preserve the tradition and teach the children not just to sing, but how to live their lives. They’ve toured globally and to be part of this group, each child has had to learn a demanding repertoire of 60 songs as well as the value of discipline and hard work. Camake says when we see 6 children on stage, we are actually hearing the emotions of a 1000 voices…the voices of their ancestors speaking behind the children’s ears and he hopes what audiences take away from the performances are not just the children’s singing, but a sense of the children’s Paiwan origins and spirit, that really is from the heart!
Wind Music of Taiwan has been working with the indigenous tribes the last 2 decades to preserve their music before its lost and has worked hard to bring the Taiwu Children’s Ancient Ballads Troupe here, so If you get a chance, I definitely recommend catching them before they leave LA. They’ll be playing another free educational showcase on Wednesday, August 28, at 3pm at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, which like yesterday’s Bowers Museum show, is a short program. They’re playing a full concert on Thursday, August 29, at 8pm at Aratani/Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo. Tickets are $20 for general seating, $40 for preferred seating (plus a 2-CD release) and are almost sold out so get them quick! Thanks to Erin for telling me about the show and Judy Wu of Wind Music for the show’s English interpretation.